Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown | Book Summary & PDF
In this Summary, You Will Learn:
- What essentialism is and how it can change your life
- The differences between essentialism and non-essentialism
- Essentialists who have lived and whom you can take as guiding examples and inspiration
- 5 strategic actions you can take today to apply the principles of essentialism
About the Author and How He Came Up with the Concept of ESSENTIALISM
Greg McKeown is an active social innovator and is the CEO of an incorporated company whose mission is to assist people and companies to spend 80% of their time on the vital few rather than the trivial. His high-profile clients include Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook, Semantic, Twitter and Yahoo, to name a few. Greg also serves as a member of the board for a Washington D.C. policy group, and as a young global leader for the World Economic Forum.
A Question and A Conversation
Around two decades ago, Greg was brainstorming for answers to a question:
“What would you do if you could do anything?”
The exercise finished with a list which excluded law school, something he found inconvenient as he was in law school at that time. He realized that he wanted to do something else: teaching, an item on the list that has kept him fascinated all these years. This then led him to another question:
“Why is it that otherwise successful people and companies don’t break through to the next level?”
After going through his brainstorms, Greg felt a bit conflicted knowing he was already almost finished with his first year in law school, so he decided to call his parents in England. His mother deferred to Greg’s father who finally told him:
“To thine own self, be true.” (A famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet character, Polonius)
His father also told him to “just do what is right, let the consequences follow.”
It was for Greg a very important conversation, which led him to quit law school and begin his adventure. He pursued teaching and writing from then on and he’s been glad to find it a great adventure. The conversation produced seeds that have found fruition in the book Essentialism itself.
Key Ideas from Essentialism
The Path of Essentialism vs. Non-Essentialism
What Essentialism is all about
- Deep tradeoffs we all need to make throughout life between going for what’s popular versus taking a narrower path
- Doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons
- A path less traveled but of higher contribution
- The path of the non-essentialist is to do a bit of everything.
- You don’t have to decide anything for yourself.
- The risk here is believing there are no tradeoffs, hence doing what the competitor does.
- Undermines the point of strategy which has competitive advantage
- It is not about being the same as something else or someone else. It’s about doing something distinct and different. How to decide how one will be different is key.
“It is a foolish dominant assumption to simply say we’ll do it all. It’s an unsustainable position and certainly not the way to become distinctive. I think that we have to begin to create some space to explore what is essential. The thing we gave up when we moved into this hyperconnected era of social media and smartphones is that every moment we use to be able to think is now consumed.”
The power of choice cannot be given or taken away. This power is sometimes forgotten when we become so reactive to various concerns — such as incoming e-mails, text messages, and the worry that’s at the back of our mind. All of those things can consume us so much that we just forget that we’re agents unto ourselves.
The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Greg cited how the Silicon Valley companies that he worked with started off with a small team focused on the right few things that led to success. But with success came options and opportunities. He said that success could become a catalyst for failure if we didn’t learn how to become successful at success.
Becoming successful at success gives everyone a reason to continue in their journey and even break through to a higher point of contribution.
Thus, if the problem is the undisciplined pursuit of more, then the antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Less but better.
Examples of Successful Essentialists
1. Warren Buffet
Warren Buffet once said that “very successful people say no to almost everything.” By this, Warren was not describing disagreeable, rude, or offensive people (which he also isn’t), but that he is incredibly selective and thoughtful not just in his own life but even in his business, i.e. Berkshire Hathaway.
The way of the essentialist is the ability to say, “I’m going to be very thoughtful and selective about the right few things and then go strong on them, rather than feel stretched too thin at work or at home. Feeling busy but not productive is not the aim.” This is what the undisciplined pursuit of more really gives us.
90% of Warren Buffett’s wealth has come from only 10 huge investments.
2. Herb Kelleher
Another story that encapsulates the idea of free will and being very discerning about decisions is the story of Southwest Airlines’ hub-to-hub flight under the leadership of its former CEO, Herb Kelleher.
The Southwest Airlines Story
Kelleher took a very unusual and yet very consistent approach while developing the business through its hub-to-hub flights: no meals and no seating arrangements during the flights.
While this strategy was initially laughed at because it was very different from the other airlines, the airline remained consistent with the strategy. Over a 10-year period, the airline became more successful and increasingly profitable.
Southwest Airlines persisted in its strategy despite the pressures of going international. It had a very strategic and deliberate discipline which allowed them to make more money by opening up more hubs within the United States.
Why Southwest under Kelleher’s helm is a great example of essentialism:
- It shows the key idea of deliberate thought through strategic tradeoffs.
- Exemplifies the “disciplined pursuit of less”
- Shows that pursuing a singular strategy and adding all sorts of levels of innovation within that focused approach can be very valuable
Continental Airlines, on the other hand, tried to compete using a straddled strategy.
- They tried to maintain all their existing services, employees, and incentive systems.
- At the same time they also tried to do another service (Continental Lite) entirely.
- They did not make a tradeoff.
- This led to competing internal resources and frustrations among employees and passengers. Soon they set new records for complaints per day and a loss of $150 million
3. Gandhi and His Essentialist Idea
The Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi succinctly described essentialism through a poem that he wrote in South Africa. His poem talked about
- Reducing oneself to zero
- Becoming less and less of who we are NOT and more and more of who we really are
- “Becoming consumed in one’s purpose”
When Gandhi died, the US Secretary of State Gen. George C. Marshall said, “Here is a man who has shown that simplicity can be more powerful than empires.”
“To think that he was able to do this without any formal title or authority is breathtaking to me still,” says Greg.
Million Indians were liberated. And now India is the largest democracy in the world. Such feats will never be achieved by a non-essentialist.
“As again, non-essentialism promises having all with no trade-offs. That’s why it’s so persuasive. We just wanted it all.”
Through time, many other people have lived as essentialists and serve as inspiration for others to follow in their footsteps.
- Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, was all about simplicity and shaping things down to the essentials.
- Michael Phelps is one of the great athletes of our time who focused single-mindedly on one thing again and again. His achievements are a result of his constant ongoing discipline.
- Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, once said, “All I want to be is the best retailer. Not the biggest but the best.”
In looking for evidence of an essentialist, one can just look at anybody who’s at the top of their game. Over a long period of time you will find that they tilt toward the essentialist way of life.
The superior sustainable performance can only be achieved by an essentialist.
How to Start with Essentialism
- Start where you have the highest control.
- Begin by scheduling your own quarterly offsite.
- Have a weekly period where you design your week.
- Practice how you would say no to new requests that come in.
- Take your phone out of your room when you are working/focused
- Spend the first 10-15 minutes of your day …
- being grateful
- reviewing what your key goals are
- getting into the mode of contribution, love, and service. (This is a more preferable mode rather than checking on an email and getting sucked into that trivial stressful experience and mind patterns we sometimes can be pulled into.)
5 Strategic Actions to Becoming an Essentialist
1. Hold a personal quarterly offsite to get clear on what progress has been made over the last quarter
- looking at the current trends in our lives
- identifying 2 or 3 strategic objectives
- what things really matter over the next 90 days
The game plan results from asking where I’ve been, where I am, and where I want to be.
You might start with it just being a couple of hours long, but eventually you may be scheduled the whole day and you can create a system that works for you, but a personal quarterly offsite.
2. Create space to design a week that really matters
This part is considered non-trivial and is an execution of essentialism.
Unless the week is designed around the things that are actually essential, you are not being an essentialist.
- Create a Weekly Planning Session where you’re designing a week that really matters.
- Think through everything that’s on the calendar.
- Determine what you think is essential and de-commit from what is no longer relevant to you.
3. Create a daily gratitude list
Some lists to work on during these sessions:
- Today’s most essential successes to celebrate
- Today’s most important things accomplished
- The 3 things you want to do tomorrow (listed and worked on according to priority)
4. Use an alarm clock that’s not in the phone
This is effective because one is not pulled into trivial distractions such as e-mails and other noise. We go into this habit of checking our phones on an average of about 150 times a day at the highest levels.
The smartphone era has given people advantages which include mobility of information almost for free. Yet, it also causes people to give up their freedom.
5. Practice how to say “NO” gracefully
Saying NO takes practice, such as actually writing out a sample email of how you can push back on somebody.
Greg suggests saying “yes” with contingencies and provisions. This one is something clever in that you are actually still saying NO because you’re only willing to do something if it meets the stringent criteria.
Saying no to others is not always saying no to ourselves.
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